Pride and Prometheus
By John Kessel
New York: Saga Press, 2018
What the book’s about:
As even a quick glance at the cover will tell you, John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus is a blend of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Set thirteen years after the events of Pride and Prejudice and three years after Victor Frankenstein first brings his Creature to life, Kessel’s novel tosses Mary and Kitty Bennet into the heart of the struggle between Victor Frankenstein and his creation, Adam.
Mary, who has taken up fossil-collecting and reading about naturalism in her spinsterhood, meets Victor Frankenstein by chance while at a ball in London. She is intrigued by his remarkable ability to both be handsome and not put off by her scholarly pursuits and exceedingly plain face.
Adam impatiently watches the relationship between Mary and Victor develop from civilization’s shadows. He is tired of being rejected and alone. He pressures Victor to create a bride for him to ease his loneliness and give him a family at last. Of course, to do this, Victor must find a suitable female body.
Wherever will he get that?
What I learned from reading this book:
Earlier this summer, I saw a stray tweet from Fonda Lee on character development:
I’ve been thinking about it on and off ever since.
Mary Bennet is not a likable character in Pride and Prejudice. She’s moralistic, judgmental, and, as far as I can tell, utterly blind to her own faults. I confess, I was more than a little worried about reading a book written from her point of view.
John Kessel deftly did away with that in his first few sentences.
“When she was nineteen, Miss Mary Bennet had believed three things that were not true. She believes that, despite her awkwardness, she might become interesting through her accomplishments. She believed that, because she paid strict attention to all that she had been taught about right and wrong, she was wise in the ways of the world. And she believed that God, who took note of every moment of one’s life, would answer prayers, even foolish ones.”
Like most of us, Kessel’s Mary is a much wiser person in her thirties than she was as a teenager. Just as Kessel convinced me to give this older and wiser Mary a chance, he did a remarkable thing. He set overlooked and rejected Mary Bennet up as a foil for the shunned and repulsive Creature.
In her first meeting with the Creature, Mary warns him that his desperately longed for bride may not turn out to be the gift he’s expecting.
“You think that having a female of your own kind will ensure that she will accept you?” Mary laughed. “Wait until you are rejected, for the most trivial of reasons, by one who ought to have been made for you.”
Yes, this is a very relatable Mary indeed. She is courageous, outspoken, and bitter. She’s also excessively practical and views her inevitable spinsterhood as a chance to shape her life however she wishes.
The interplay between Mary and the Creature becomes the foundation for an unlikely friendship that illuminates the second half of the book. In many ways, the friendship between Mary and Adam, as she renames the Creature, is far more satisfying than any possible romance between Mary and Victor could be. Mary’s experiences with Adam reveal her self-reliance and courage. In his interactions with her, we catch a glimpse of completely different man, one capable of loyalty, honor, and–dare we say it–gentlemanly behavior.
By the end of the book, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if Mary had been present at Adam’s awakening, and not simply the scientifically advanced, but emotionally inadequate Victor.